HIPAA prevents doctors from alerting family of addicts who overdose

Trump's declaration of Public Health Emergency could change that


ROANOKE – For those battling addiction, the road to recovery is one that can't be taken alone.

Local doctors said current federal regulations on patient privacy are keeping doctors from helping overdose patients. Right now, doctors aren't allowed to tell the family or spouses of adult addicts that their loved one overdosed on drugs.

President Trump's declaration of a public health emergency could change that.

The structure of a public health emergency declaration allows states to have a lot of flexibility in the way they enforce and interpret federal regulations, and that includes patient privacy laws.

Dr. John H. Burton of Carilion Clinic said the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA laws are one of their biggest roadblocks in getting adult addicts help.

"It's really hard seeing mothers, fathers of 19-year-old young men and women who overdose and those mothers and fathers say, why didn't you call me? No one ever told me about this. And they say that to law enforcement, they say that to health care workers and for different statutory reasons we are very limited in our ability to communicate to those individuals."

The patient privacy law, designed to protect our personal health information, is actually one of the things Burton said is doing more harm than good when it comes to the opioid epidemic, allowing those addicts to hide the fact they overdosed from parents, spouses or other support systems.

"One of the biggest challenges that we have for families of addicted patients and families of overdose patients is that we know through addiction treatment that a person is more likely to survive in the future and do well in overdose treatment if they have a lot of family support and support from loved ones,” Burton said.

But if the addict, despite how severe their overdose is doesn't want that information released than doctors hands are tied. Leaving the addict to suffer in secrecy.

“The way it is right now is you have to say yes to endorse that, But the vast majority of people who come in do not want us to do that because they are trying to keep their addiction under wraps. Specifically, if they come in on an actionable event like a life-threatening overdose they don't want people to know about it,” Burton said.

While Burton said it's understandable, it also impairs the potential for recovery and an intervention by loved ones.

"You can't do it alone. Communicating with other people would allow you to bring other people into that equation to support that person. They want to support that person because they know that person can't do it alone,” Burton said.

10 News has made a commitment to helping our community battle this epidemic. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, we've created a page on our website with resources all across our community, visit wsls.com/addiction

About the Author: